Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Officials say systems are shutting down, service is getting worse, transit systems are aging, and there are $78 billion worth of needs out there -- just to keep the system functioning more or less as it is today.
And all that comes as Congress and Governors are showing themselves in no mood to fund public transit.
The tension between just fixing everything that's broken -- or about to break -- and all the new transit that's needed to really give Americans mobility options was fully on display at an APTA press conference at its annual rail conference Monday.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff argued: "We want to provide the American public in the maximum number of communities with real transit choices, and give them the opportunity to keep more money in their wallet rather than hand it over at the gas pump, but in order to do that the transit service has to be available, it has to be safe and clean. It has to be reliable and desirable." His remarks came at a press conference at the APTA 2011 Rail Conference, (see our earlier blog posts with highlights from that).
But before thinking about making transit a real option for most, if not all Americans, Rogoff said, there's a $50 billion hole that needs filling.
In the seven largest systems, which carry 80 percent of the rail transit passenger load in the U.S. -- including New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles -- there is a $50 billion backlog of major maintenance needs. Rogoff said the FTA has proposed combining funding streams to "rifle shot" resources to where they are most needed.
"Reliable transit is really the difference between getting home in time to have dinner as a family, or not; getting home in time to supervise homework, or not; or being able to pick your kid up on time from day care, all of these core quality of life issues, which are critical if we are going to entice more people on transit. But for for the millions of transit riders who do not have an automobile option these investments are critical to maintaining a viable transit system," Rogoff said.
Rogoff acknowledged that Congress must approve the above plan, as well as a proposal to allow transit systems to use federal funds to operate and not just for their capital budgets.
The seams are already splitting, said Richard Davey, General Manager of Rail and Transit for the MBTA in Boston. On the "Orange Line, we’re required to run 96 cars, and 102 in rush hour, in order to have proper headway. We’re not seeing that anymore. Our customers are waiting in platforms a little longer -- 30 seconds, maybe a minute. If we don’t invest in our vehicles, you will be standing on platforms," Davey said.
But Rogoff still questioned whether bringing systems into a state of good repair is more important than expanding transit -- which makes it more of a choice for more Americans.
"Why should we invest in expanding a footprint when we know that they they are not adequately investing in their current footprint? Rogoff asked of transit agencies across the country. (He promised to ask Boston that question soon.)
"It’s a critical and important question to ask and we don’t back away from it. We’re having that dialog now with the MUNI system in San Francisco and the central subway project where we want to see a continuing financial commitment to, at a minimum, not allowing the MUNI system to go backward when we are also investing money to expand the system that they will then be required to maintain."
"One of the challenges we have with a number of systems across America is that there was a lot of enthusiasm and political support to build out the services to communities that want and need it and far less enthusiasm for making the necessary investments to maintain them."